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Cannes 2011: Palme d'Or race begins to come into focus

May 14, 2011 |  2:45 pm

It's never too early to begin handicapping the Palme d'Or race.  The film-festival world's most prestigious prize captures the attention of attendees in Cannes the way the New Hampshire primary mesmerizes political pundits -- it's hashed out and obsessed over for every possible shade of meaning -- and provides a film festival with a certain level of suspense.

With the competition now one-third underway, moviedom's John King's are really starting to get going. Which of the 20 or so movies in competition have the inside track?

Based on some informal polling about the films that have screened, two movies have emerged as strong early contenders: Joseph Cedar's father-son picture "Footnote" and Lynn Ramsay's violent-child tale "We Need to Talk About Kevin." The choice of either would break from recent tradition, but also contain a certain logic.

"Footnote" is the rare Israeli film not to contend with issues of war or national politics, and some jurors may question if it has the scope to merit a Palme. But the film, which centers on an academic rivalry and family dysfunction, also shares plenty of similarities with the French film "The Class," which won the Palme back in 2008. Assorted media and tastemakers have embraced the dramedy since it screened on Friday night.

And it's been some time since an English-language film came on strong -- five year's since Ken Loach's "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" took the prize and seven and eight years since American films won in consecutive years (Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 911" in 2004 and Gus Van Sant's "Elephant" the year before). But "Kevin" has established its bona fides. Though the Tilda Swinton-John C. Reilly drama seems a bit too divisive to be considered a favorite, it's won over enough critics and festivalgoers to be in the mix. That jury head Robert De Niro has worked with so many in Hollywood could give an edge to a movie with big-name stars.

Still to screen are films from past winners such as the Dardenne Bros. and Lars von Trier. Also pundits are wondering if this could be the year of Pedro Almodovar -- despite an illustrious career and a near-permanent spot at Cannes, the Spanish director has never won a Palme. He'll have to do it this year with a movie that has genre leanings, a revenge thriller titled "The Skin I Live In." The movie does screen late in the festival, which some consider an advantage.

Two even bigger question marks hang out there, though, starting with Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life." If the long-awaited auteur film lives up to expectations-- and they are considerable -- look for the film to move in prime Palme position after it screens on Monday.

Meanwhile, Michel Hazanavicius' silent film "The Artist" has buzz in its favor. The movie screens Sunday morning, and though it remains to be seen whether it's enjoyed as novelty or something more, don't be surprised if it comes out on top. The Cannes competition jury tends to favor formal rigor above many other factors, which is part of the reason "The White Ribbon" took the prize back in 2009.

Then again, the Cannes competition jury favors surprise above many other factors too, as anyone who watched "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives" win last year can attest. Don't be surprised, then, if there's still a big surprise.


Cannes 2011: Israeli dramedy 'Footnote' finds a buyer insider the margins

Cannes 2011: Finally, the end of secrets on Terrence Malick's 'The Tree of Life'

Cannes 2011: Everyone feels the need to talk about 'Kevin'

-- Steven Zeitchik

Photo: Tilda Swinton in "We Need to Talk About Kevin." Credit: Cinetic Media